The Real Poop
Space—the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Shmooperprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new careers; to seek out interesting facts and helpful advice; to boldly make jokes that no one has made before.
An astronaut's as close as a human can get to being captain of a starship—and that's cool, because that's actually part of it. It's not just about flying up to space and moving around without gravity holding you down; it's a career of startling variety, with an average salary orbiting around $90,000 or so a year (source). Astronauts can be called upon to do anything from operating a robotic arm on the International Space Station, to conducting earthbound experiments at bases in Texas or Florida, to fixing a defective toilet at zero gravity.
Yes, that's as ridiculous as it sounds.
Astronauts are scientists, explorers, teachers, and role models all rolled into one. They're men and women on a mission—even if there are fewer missions now than a few decades ago. Some of them are military personnel while others come from the civilian world, but the important part is that they're ready, willing, and psychologically able to make the journey beyond the wide blue yonder.
Before you space cowboys and cowgirls run off to NASA, first you should check out the chances of actually achieving your orbital dream.
A tiny percentage—about one-tenth of one percent—of astronaut applicants are accepted into the grueling astronaut training program. Then you've got to actually make it through said program, complete with all the physical, emotional, and vomitable rigors they throw at you.
For those who actually make it off planet Earth, enjoy that fun ride out of Kazakhstan; the U.S. ended its space shuttle program a few years ago and hasn't created its own replacement yet. So for now, if you want to get off the planet you'll have to muscle in on a Russian crew heading there in a Soyuz spacecraft.
Who cares, you say, as you try to figure out why President Putin is staring at you. I'm going up to space and you're not gonna stop me, Shmoop. Fine—you're committed to this, that's cool. And you're going to have to be committed; as we said before, the road to being an astronaut is a long and twisted one, and is physically and emotionally taxing.
For starters, claustrophobia's a big no-no for future astronauts of America. Space capsules and space stations make for a lot of up-close-and-personal living. You also have to be in great physical shape. Strong bones and muscles, reinforced by cardiovascular and weight-training exercises, are the antidote to what the weightlessness does to those body parts.
We'll paint you a picture: imagine what a toothpaste tube looks like near the end, and that's about what your muscles are going through in all that weightlessness time.
On the bright side, no one's going to expect you to do any dishes or re-register your car at the DMV while you're in space—so there's that.
You have to be good in science of course, but equally important are your social skills. Hear that, science fans? Playing well with others is crucial when you're bunched up against each other in a close quarters, in space, for up to six months—or even longer, as NASA prepares for a future manned mission to our cosmic sibling Mars.
So, you're still bent on being an astronaut. Now's the time to ask yourself, which kind? Let's assume that you don't want to be a "payload specialist," which is the domain of teachers, senators, and space tourists who can drop a few million on going up to space for a hot minute.
There's the pilot astronaut (a.k.a. "The Commander") who pilots the space vehicle—and typically has military experience (source).
Then there's the bulk of the crew which will be made up of mission specialists, who conduct science experiments and noodle around the space vehicle or station making repairs and launching satellites.
These folks come with earthly training as doctors, biologists, and engineers. What this all means is you're going to have to figure out your path and walk it—get that degree or fly those planes, and maybe they'll actually let you go to space.
Now, a little bit of truth time: you won't be spending a whole lot of your life in space. Most of the time, you'll be an astronaut who just happens to be walking around in normal gravity. Earthbound life includes committee meetings, speaking at schools, test-driving software and hardware, toiling at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, and other such totally-not-in-space activities.
This life's known in astronautic vernacular as flying a desk, and in regular person vernacular as sitting at a desk.
We like the astro-version better.
The glory of being an astronaut—desk bound or not—is you get to participate in the bold quest of exploring the vast unknown that is the rest of the universe. It may be lonely out in space, but with all the people you'll be impressing on Earth, we're sure the welcome back party's going to be epic.